Plan a Vernal visit for a deep dive into Utah’s ancient past
By Geoff Griffin and Kathleen Curry
When it comes to finding ancient Utah, Vernal is a spot where you can ask, “How old do we want to go?” You can hike to petroglyphs left by the Fremont people about 1,000 years ago. You can wander through other-worldly rock formations in aptly named Fantasy Canyon that are made of sandstone dating back 50 million years. You can touch the bones of dinosaurs that wandered the earth more than 150 million years ago at Dinosaur National Monument.
Amid all of those ancient treasures, a weekend getaway to Vernal also lets you experience some very modern dining and activities to balance out the trip. Consider the following itinerary:
Salt Lake City to Vernal
The three-hour drive to Vernal starts by heading east on Interstate 80 out of Salt Lake City, continuing past Park City and taking exit 146 to head east on US-40. You’ll head through the beauty of Heber Valley before the roadway merges on to US-191.
About half-an-hour before getting to Vernal, you’ll pass through the town of Roosevelt, which is the perfect time to stop at Marion’s Variety (29 N. Main, Roosevelt, 435-722-2143, Facebook.com/Marions-Variety) a small-town, ’50s-style diner that features a slice-of-Americana menu with burgers, sandwiches and plenty of ice-cream options.
After eating, it’s a half-hour-drive to Vernal to check in at Dinosaur Inn & Suites (251 E. Main, Vernal, 435-315-0123, DinoInn.com). Locally owned and operated—in business since 1929—the room options here include family suites, and the free breakfast every morning features eggs cooked to order.
Vernal to Jensen (Dinosaur National Monument)
Although you have a free breakfast where you’re staying, you also might want to check out some breakfast venues that are popular with the locals. Betty’s Cafe (416 W. Main, Vernal, 435-781-2728, Facebook.com/Bettys-Cafe-Vernal) is one of those places where everybody in town knows the owner and the chicken-fried steak breakfast is so big that it has to be served on two plates.
Thirteen miles southeast of Vernal on US-40 is Jensen, where you’ll turn and travel north seven miles to the Quarry Visitor Center at Dinosaur National Monument (11625 E. 1500 South, Jensen, 970-374-3000, NPS.gov/dino). From there, during the offseason, you can drive to the Quarry Exhibit Hall where you can see 1,500 dinosaur bones, many still partly embedded in rocks.
Step outside the hall, and you go from artifacts that are millions of years old to a thousand years old. Petroglyphs created by the Fremont people who inhabited the area from about 200-1300 A.D. can be found at five sites throughout the park. The “Swelter Shelter”—one of the oldest known sites of human occupation in the monument—is just 200 feet from the Quarry Exhibit Parking lot, and the furthest hike to any of the sites is just 2 miles.
Another way to experience the park is while rafting down the Green or Yampa rivers. Monument-approved commercial guides (see NPS.gov/dino) do single-day trips through Split Mountain Canyon as well as multi-day trips. Visitors can also apply for a permit to do their own non-commercial river trip.
Afternoon & Evening
Back in town, you can keep the dino theme of the day going with a visit to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum (496 E. Main, Vernal, 435-789-3799, StateParks.Utah.gov, see more on p. 12). After a day in the outdoors, you might want to consider the option of grabbing a pre-dinner massage or other spa treatment at Ooh La La and Friends (194 S. Vernal Ave., Vernal, 435-789-6553, OohLaLaAndFriends.com)
Vernal Brewing Co.’s craft beers are now available around the state, but you can taste them where they’re actually brewed at gastropub Vernal Brewing Co. (55 S. 500 East, Vernal, 435-781-2337, VernalBrewing.com). Highlights of this gastropub’s menu include chicken skillet pie made with a puff pastry, or the VBC burger that comes with candied bacon and onion marmalade. Whatever you choose to eat, you can pair it with a variety of beers on-tap such as the Allosaurus Amber Ale or Rigor Mortis Red Ale.
Vernal to Red Fleet State Park
Start the day at 7-11 Ranch Restaurant (77 E. Main, Vernal, 435-789-1170, 7-11RanchRestaurant.com), Vernal’s oldest restaurant dating back to 1933. The founder allegedly got the location by bribing a town official with a jug of whiskey. Want a hamburger for breakfast? Why not? A hamburger that comes with three eggs, hash browns, biscuits and gravy for just $8.99? Yes, please!
Twelve miles northeast of Vernal, Red Fleet State Park (8750 N. Highway 191, Vernal, 435-789-4432, StateParks.Utah.gov/parks/red-fleet) offers the chance to hike to dinosaur tracks and try many other outdoor activities. Visitors can boat, fish or paddle board on Red Fleet Reservoir. In the world of mountain biking, Vernal is becoming known as a second Moab, and several outstanding bike trails run through the park.
Dinosaur Brew Haus (550 E. Main, Vernal, 435-781-0717, Facebook.com/dinosaurbrewhaus) is a place known for its grilled salmon sandwich and a green chili Philly sandwich. If you go in on Saturday after 5 p.m., they feature a half-rack of pork ribs served with fries and sides of macaroni salad or coleslaw.
Vernal to Salt Lake City
You only need to drive a couple of minutes on Highway 40 to go from Vernal to the town of Naples, home of Naples Country Cafe (1010 S. 1500 East, Naples, 435-789-8870, Facebook.com/NaplesCountryCafe). Get there as early or late as you want, because they serve breakfast all day. They’re also known for their pies and baked goods.
Next, head south out of Vernal on UT-45. After a 40-mile drive of just under an hour, you’ll see signs for Fantasy Canyon (435-781-4400, BLM.gov/visit/fantasy-canyon) This 10-acre space, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, gets its name because the sandstone rock formations (with the sandstone itself dating back about 50 million years) have an other-worldly appearance that makes visitors feel like it wouldn’t be surprising for a dragon or a wizard to suddenly pop out. The best way to get an up-close look is to hike the half-mile loop through the property. (You can read a March 2018 travelogue about Fantasy Canyon, written by Chris Vanocur, at VamooseUtah.com)
After leaving Fantasy Canyon, the drive back to the Wasatch Front will take you through the ghost town of Ouray on the way up to US-191 (the same route that brought you east on Thursday). This time, the drive will take about 45 minutes longer.
About three hours into the drive, you’ll find yourself in the Heber Valley, home to the new eatery, Midway Mercantile (99 E. Main, Midway, 435-315-4151, MidwayMercantile.com). Built as a store in 1874, Midway Mercantile was just refurbished prior to chef John Platt and his family opening a restaurant in the building. The dining room menu includes raclette-cheese fondue and daily specials built around fresh, handmade pasta. If you’d rather relax in the bar, you can enjoy pub fare such as lamb shepherd’s pie and stone-hearth pizzas.
After a weekend of entering multiple portals that connect with Utah’s ancient past, you can happily return to 2019, knowing you’ll soon return.